In recent years, the peanut bunker runs have fizzled, and a new baitfish has taken over as the main course for fall-run bass and blues—the sand eel. Though sand eels don’t fuel all-out blitzes like the small menhaden, they do something even better—they stay put. While peanut bunker exhibited a here-today, gone-tomorrow trait, sand eels will remain in an area for weeks, causing migrating stripers to make a nice long pit stop on their way south.
Whether you fish Long Island or the Jersey Shore you can thank sand eels for the wonderfully sustained fall runs we’ve had over the past five years. To help you stay on the bite this fall, Tom Melton (Long Island) and Captain Jim Freda (New Jersey) have broken down the finer points of catching stripers during the sand eel run.
What are Sand Eels?
The family name of the sand eel, Ammodytes, means burrower. This slender fish uses its pointed snout to dig into the sand to avoid predators. In spite of their common name, sand eels are not related to eels. Sand eels form a base of the marine food chain in the North Atlantic. Sea birds, fluke, striped bass, cod, tuna and even whales feed on the dense schools of sand eels present in Northeast waters.
Most sand eels are 4 to 6 inches long, but baits of 9 inches or longer are not uncommon. Sand eels vary in color, but most have an olive, brownish or bluishgreen back, with silvery lower sides and a dull white underside.
Sand eels live on offshore lumps and structure during the spring and summer, providing food for cod, bluefin tuna and other open ocean species. As the ocean temperatures cool in the fall, sand eels move inshore just as stripers and bluefish are beginning their migration south.
For the surf, I prefer a 10- to 11-foot rod like the Lamiglas Super Surf matched to a large capacity surf reel like the Van Staal VS300, Daiwa Isla 7000 or the old standby Penn 706Z.
I use the same line for all my surf fishing—Sufix 832 in 20-pound test. I also tie in a 10-foot length of 40-pound test via a double uni-knot. I use 40-pound-test Ande pink monofilament as my leader.
On the boat, I like the Abu Garcia 7000C revolving spool reel and 20- to 30-pound-test monofilament. I like the stretch mono gives when fighting a fish, as it allows some forgiveness, reducing the likelihood of a pulled hook. When the seas are calm and currents are moderate, monofilament will suffice in getting the jig down to the strike zone.
Any good 7 to 7 ½-foot rod rated for 20 to 40 pounds will work fine. I have been using the Penn Legion 1530C70 for several years now. It is rated for 15- to 30-pound mono and has a somewhat fast taper, along with enough backbone to tame stripers of any size.
– T. Melton
On The Fly
If you ever wanted to catch a striped bass on the fly, the sand eel run is the time to do it. Long, slender flies will work best. Bob Popovics’s Jiggy Fly is my number one choice as it perfectly imitates the sand eel’s slender profile. The weighted heads of these flies will also help them sink deeper in the water column. Chuck Furminsky’s Leather Buckskin Sand Eels, Clouser Minnows, Half and Halfs, Farrar’s Silly Skins, Flatwings, and tube flies will also work well.
From the boat, fish these flies on 10-weight rods. I like the St Croix Legend Elite or Legend X series. A quick-sinking line or head is used to bring the fly down deep into the strike zone. The RIO Outbound Series coldwater sinking lines or RIO 30-foot shooting heads attached to a thin diameter .030 intermediate running line will drop quickly in the water column with minimal drag when your boat has little or no drift. I use 300- to 450-gram lines, depending on the drift.
If strong current and wind is pushing the boat, it will be difficult to get the flies down deep. You can throw out a drift sock or 5-gallon bucket to slow down your drift so your fly line will sink deeper. If you dump 100 feet of fly line into the water along with some backing and wait, you can get your fly down 30 to 35 feet. Retrieve your flies with a series of strips and pauses to impart an up-and-down action. When a bass takes the fly, strip-strike hard two times to set the hook.
From the surf or jetty, you can also fly-fish using a 200- to 300-grain sinking line or a clear cold-water intermediate striped bass line. Time your cast so that it falls on the backside of a wave rather than into the face of the white water to make sure your line and fly isn’t pushed immediately into the beach or rocks.
– J. Freda
by Tom Melton
As false dawn lit up the ocean waters off Southampton, NY, birds began diving on schools of sand eels. The wind was out of the southeast and the sand eels were tight to the beach. My son-in-law Isa and I were well prepared with diamond jigs tipped with green and red tails. My jig left the rod tip and landed several hundred feet out. Within seconds, the rod doubled over and I was into the first bass of the morning. After landing the teen-size striper, I turned to Isa and said, “They’re here!” As I made my second cast, Isa was hooked up to another teen fish. This scenario lasted well into the early morning hours, with every caster on the beach landing quality stripers up to 30 pounds.
The following day, the wind came up out of the north about 20 miles-per-hour. The ocean was as calm as a lake, and there were absolutely no sand eels or diving birds—at least not within casting range. In fact, gannets and gulls were easily three to five casts off the beach. We did not see a fish landed on the beach that morning, but after speaking with several party, private and charter boat captains, I learned that they had caught stripers to 40 pounds all day long!
When the winds are out of the south, the sand eels will be pushed onshore and you should be in the surf! I prefer winds up to 20 miles-per-hour, with 10 to 15 the optimum strength. Do not overlook stronger winds, but in that scenario, you will have to pick your spot a lot more carefully. For instance, if it is blowing hard out of the southwest at 25 miles-per-hour, a sand bar running out from the beach toward an inlet will produce well on the dropping tide.
When the winds come from the north and the seas flatten out, the sand eels will remain farther offshore, and conditions will be perfect for heading out in a boat.
I always begin with an A27 and green tube or Red Gill. I will switch to red, back to green, maybe even white, but I like green the best. If the fish are fickle, I use the Daiwa Salt Pro minnow in Laser Green Shiner, Purple Back Silver or Sand Eel. I also use the olive-back 9-inch Tsunami Holographic Sand Eel. Large or stubby Super Strike needlefish work very well after dark or as the seas build.
To retrieve diamond jigs for stripers, bomb a cast as far as you can, allow the jig to settle on the bottom, and then begin a slow- to medium-speed retrieve. If the fish are active, you should be into one fast. After several casts without fish, begin changing up. The first change I make is to a red tube. If that does not pan out, I go to white, followed by a Salt Pro Minnow or Tsunami Sand Eel.
When fishing the sand-eel run in the surf, I have found that if there are no birds working, the bite is usually slow. This doesn’t mean you need to chase flocks of birds up and down the beach. A handful of birds picking bait is enough to signal that sand eels—and stripers—are in the area.
Typically, a bar or cut in between two visible bars will always produce better than a long stretch of beach with no visible structure. I start out on the edge of the bar and work my way toward the center. If the tide is dropping, the water will be moving to the west. Fish the bar, then walk slowly and make repetitive casts west of the bar.
When conditions are right and the sand eel bite is on, there will be a small armada of boats over the fish. Either follow the fleet or look for diving birds. If you arrived early and beat the fleet, watch your electronics for schools of bait. Find the bait, and the fish will find you.
For the most part, you will be vertical jigging for stripers. Diamond jigs ranging from the A27, 2-3/4-ounce size to the 6-ounce A87 are preferred lures. For most occasions, however, I use either the A47 or the A67. Some days, the fish will show a preference for jigs with either a smooth or a hammered finish. Discovering which one works best on a given day takes some trial and error.
It is quite humorous to me that when I am on the beach, I must have a tube on the jig, but as soon as I hit the open water, I prefer a jig without the tube. I really do not know why, but most days on the boat, no tube outfishes the jig with a tube.
For jigging, there are basically three techniques to employ. The first is the drop to the bottom, reel up 10 cranks, and then drop back down. When dropping, allow the jig to fall, but keep the line tight. Often, a striper will hit on the fall. The second is to make a cast away from the boat and reel back in with long sweeps of the rod. This one is tough to do on party boats, but if you can handle your rod well, you can do it. The third is the simplest of them all—drop the jig to the bottom and then reel to the top as fast as you can!
by Captain Jim Freda
The late fall is an exciting time of year at the Jersey Shore. For the last several seasons, a tremendous run of sand eels has brought big schools of migrating stripers close to the New Jersey coast. Thousands of these baitfish take up residence in the outer bars off the central New Jersey beaches from late October through December, providing food for the stripers heading south for the winter. Both boat and shore fishermen can cash in on this fishery. When the sand eels hit the beach, they can be so thick that surfcasters regularly snag them with their lures. By boat, dense schools of sand eels and stripers light up fishfinders and provide redhot action with jigs.
During this migration, most of the striped bass range from 24 to 36 inches, although 30- to 35-pound fish occasionally show up. Bluefish in the 8- to 15-pound range will also show up to gorge on the sand eel bounty. The bulk of the bluefish will disappear once ocean temperatures drop below 55 degrees. This usually happens around the middle of November, leaving only the stripers for the final month of the season.
Sand eel activity peaks when ocean temperatures are between 58 and 48 degrees. This typically happens between the first week of November and the third week in December—barring any week-long Arctic cold fronts that could quickly drop the water temperature.
The early part of a Northeast blow puts the sand eels on the Jersey Shore beaches and gives surfcasters a great opportunity to catch fall-run stripers. However, a sustained blow will dirty the water and make fishing difficult.
Boats have success during the sand eel run on any days that are calm enough to break the inlet. Too much west wind, while making for calm seas, will drop the inshore water temperature and send the bass and sand eels offshore, or even on their way south.
Garden State surfcasters will want to focus on achieving maximum distance with each cast when fishing stripers during the sand eel run. Many times, reaching the outer bar from the beach means the difference between hooking up or not. To help reach these fish, spool up with 30- or 40-pound-test braided line.
To imitate sand eels, and reach the fish, surfcasters turn to needlefish such as those made by Gibbs or Super Strike. Retrieve them slowly with just a twitch of the rod tip every four or five turns of the reel handle.
The Ava 27 or 47 diamond jig, Deadly Dick, A.O.K. T-Hex, Acme Need-L-Eel, Hopkins No=Eql and the Jetty Ghost Keeled Sand Eel are excellent lure choices when distance is needed or a stiff northeast wind is in your face.
All of these artificials can be fished with a teaser such as a Femlee Eel, Red Gill, Vision Sand Eel or fly, tied on with a dropper loop 18 to 24 inches above the artificial. Many times this will result in double headers of striped bass.
When casting distance isn’t as important, soft plastics can be killer sand eel imitations. My favorites are a Hogy Sand Eel and a Skinny Hogy rigged on a 1- to 3-ounce jighead. The Tsunami Sand Eel, Vision Surf Eel, Bill Hurley Sand Eel and the Berkley PowerBait Sand Eel all work just as well.
Popular surf lures like sinking needlefish, soft plastics and metals can be effective on the boat. Cast the lure away from the boat, allow it to sink to the bottom and work it back slowly to cover the entire water column. Many times bass and blues will follow a lure up from the bottom and strike when it gets near the surface.
Deep-water jigging has traditionally been the most successful method at this time of year, particularly on board the party boats. Schools of sand eels will usually be found hanging near the bottom in 30 to 70 feet of water. Fish jigs in the bottom 5 feet of the water column because some of the biggest striped bass will be located there.
When the drift is fast, some boaters lose contact with the bottom because they are not using a jig that is heavy enough. On these days, I use an A67 or A87 Ava or a 250- to 300-gram Sting-O PBJ to ensure that my jig is in the strike zone. Japanese-style speed jigging is also effective for targeting stripers during the sand eel run. Speed jigging is much different than the traditional lift-and-drop technique. When speed jigging, the head of the jig should never drop down when retrieving—it should always be moving up from the bottom in a zig-zag pattern. One turn of the handle should be in sync with a short lift of the rod.
I like to set a couple rods in the rod holders with jigs trailing away from the boat at an angle. To do this, I cast out a jig as far away from the boat as I can and allow it to sink to the bottom. As the boat drifts, I let out an additional 40 to 50 feet of line and place the rod in a rod holder. As the boat drifts, the jig will rise off the bottom and flutter up and down as the boat moves along. This do-nothing approach always adds a few fish to the trip.